Caetano Veloso

Pasadena Civic Auditorium, November 14

At age 65, sweet-voiced singer-composer Caetano Veloso represents perhaps the ultimate picture of the greatness of Brazilian music in all its deceptively breezy charm. As a member of the tropicalismo music and art faction back in the early ’70s, he was considered a troublemaker by his government’s then tight-ass cultural police; the tropicalistas’ relatively avant-garde approach was viewed as disruptive to the social order. But subsequent years have seen the world coming round to Veloso’s charmingly quirky way of conveying a new kind of Brazilian music, one that pays indirect heed to the samba DNA that is its basic life source but which eagerly cannibalizes the European and American influences (rock, jazz, hip-hop, electronic music, etc.) that have pushed the country’s music forward and on up toward the stars.

At the Pasadena Civic last Wednesday night, Veloso and his young, tough electric three-piece brought his varied catalog of gently experimental songs into ever rockier realms, beginning with a hard-edged shuffle called “Outro” from his recent album. The new-wavey tinge of the sound (kitschily so, even) via fuzzed-out guitars and hard-backed — and decidedly unsambalike ­— beats was initially just amusing in its brash glee, but assumed an oddly fitting aspect deeper into the proceedings.

Veloso and crew did several variations on this lighter, idiosyncratic side of his material, racing through the rapid-fire polyrhythms of such hectic fare as “Chão Da Praça” while he good-naturedly clowned things up at the front of the stage. That touchingly tenderhearted voice of his (rich in vibrato, unlike the more flat-toned bossa nova singers of yore), along with some inspired acoustic guitar voicings, hushed the room on a couple of old ballads, including the crowd pleaser “Coraçáo Vagabundo.”

He sang wonderfully in Portuguese and English. A subtly inventive guitarist, Veloso’s a comfortingly engaging presence onstage. Yet it was the composer/arranger in electric mode that really impressed; his apparent belief in the importance of recasting, for better or worse, his empathy-rich and poetically/politically charged songs in often harshly beguiling musical settings says everything about his importance in the ongoing relevance of Brazilian music (or, equally inspiring, new music being made by 65-year-olds). At the Civic, Veloso’s masterfully complex compositions, while easy on the ear, frequently segued into hypnotic and surprise-strewn forays through extended and episodic structures that approached as head scratchers but ultimately paid intriguing musical dividends.

Veloso confessed at one point that, yes, he does shoot his mouth off about things political on occasion, but he usually regrets it, and prefers to let his music — which is more capable of opening the mind and heart to complicated emotional shades, and in such sensually pleasing ways — do the talking. And he made his point quite clear.

—John Payne

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